by Bruce Sylvester
June 15 marks the eightieth anniversary of country outlaw Waylon Jennings’ birth. Though he left this world in 2002, his legend and influence remain strong – recently in a 22-song CD/DVD “Outlaw: Celebrating The Music Of Waylon Jennings” (Legacy) and his widow Jessi Colter’s open-hearted and candid autobiography “An Outlaw And A Lady (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins) co-authored with David Ritz. It’s a fast read and very perceptive. Plus she has a new devotional CD, “Psalms” (also on Legacy).
The tribute includes Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (the survivors among The Highwaymen) plus younger generations’ Chris Stapleton, Ryan Bingham, Sturgill Simpson, and others covering Jennings standards like “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Jamey Johnson approaches the mix of strength, tenderness and vulnerability that made Waylon’s original “Freedom To Stay” so powerful on his groundbreaking 1973 LP “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean” (whose title track Eric Church tears through here). Dueting with Johnson, Alison Krauss sings blue-eyed soul – as Jessi could — on Jessi’s composition “I Ain’t The One.” Jessi herself solos on piano on “Mona” – which she wrote for her husband – while their son Shooter Jennings delivers “Whistlers And Jugglers.” The DVD’s camera often rightly focuses on Waylon’s long-time steel guitar whiz Robbie Turner (whose parents played in a young Hank Williams’s band).
In some ways, Waylon and Jessi (his fourth wife) were meant for each other. In other ways, they were polar opposites. He was dubious about spiritual matters until near his life’s end, whereas her autobiography often speaks of her closeness to God stemming from her Arizona childhood with a race-car-driving dad and a pentecostal preacher mother who open-mindedly let her seven kids read whatever they wanted. Born in 1943, young Mirriam Rebecca Joan Johnson (the stage name Jessi Colter came later) loved Poe’s poetry. As for music, she forthrightly acknowledges liking Johnnie Ray (the ’50s’ prince of wails) more than Hank Williams.
At 17, she met twangy guitar slinger Duane Eddy, who recognized her singing and songwriting talents, fell in love with her and brought her to the attention of “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark (who had a financial interest in Eddy’s label, Jamie). She thought highly of Eddy but says she was too young to have ever experienced romantic love. She wed him anyhow, winding up with “a marriage that never grew into anything more than a meaningful friendship.” Her first 45 single (done as Mirriam Johnson) appeared on Jamie. Clark “plugged my records shamelessly.”
Eddy, five years her senior, introduced her to Ayn Rand’s writings, classical music and up-and-coming Waylon Jennings. “I was deeply interested but also deeply apprehensive. The more people in Phoenix talked about Waylon, the more incorrigible he appeared. It wasn’t only the long list of women he had supposedly seduced (or had seduced him), it was also his reputation for being high on high-potency pep pills. And yet … I sensed something in this man I couldn’t ignore. I saw him as a fellow adventurer, a man unafraid of uncharted territory, a man willing to go anywhere and do anything in pursuit of some ever-elusive truth.” She speculates that “his main motivation for pill-popping was simply to stay up. … Life excited him so much that he didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to miss a thing.”
After a divorce from Eddy, they were wed in Las Vegas on Oct. 26, 1969, in a perfunctory ceremony performed by a bored justice of the peace. “I was nervous and scared and convinced that this was either the best day of my life or the worst.”
During moments of marital despair, songwriting proved therapeutic. (“I wrote because I had to. Writing was the only way to voice the warring factions in my mind.”) She details some ballads’ evolutions. While Waylon’s career skyrocketed as a solo and then with The Highwaymen, she didn’t mind hers cooling down since it allowed more time for family.
Her husband’s unique sense of humor emerges in her book. Her embarrassed take on the Cadillac-buying legend is different from his. When a minister once asked what he believed, Waylon replied, “Yeah.”
While she was raised in the warmth of faith in a loving God, she suspects that he reacted against the severity of sermons he’d heard as a child and that childhood poverty left him unable to feel worthy of God’s love.
Incidentally, in the 1990s, while helping with the writing of “Waylon: The Autobiography” guitarist Lenny Kaye overheard Jessi playing piano and singing psalms to herself. A decade later, he got her into a studio to tape some as he played backup. Over another decade, Kaye added discreet overdubs including Al Kooper on keyboards and more and John Jackson on mandolin and fiddle. The result is her new 12-track CD “Psalms.”
The disc reflects a discussion Jessi recalls in her book. When Waylon remarked, “I’m not sure the exploring stops until the day we die,” she replied, “Which may be the day that the real exploring just begins.”
Maybe a key to their relationship was that she gave him the freedom to stay.